Ten Tips to Make Your Family’s Istanbul Adventure a Smashing Success

Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travel: Top 10 Tips for Traveling Families.. what you need to know before taking the kids to Istanbul!Have you smelled the salt in the air and felt the press of the crowds while virtually bopping around the Bosphorus and ancient city of Istanbul with us? I’m wrapping up our Turkish Family Travel Adventure series today with my top ten tips for making your own trip to Istanbul both budget-friendly and a smashing success!

Let’s get right to it, shall we?Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travel: Top 10 Tips for Traveling Families.. what you need to know before taking the kids to Istanbul!

Get an e-visa. The majority of travelers will need a visa to enter Turkey. Unlike other countries with arduous processes (ahem.. Russia), obtaining a visa to enter Turkey is relatively painless and can be done online in advance here.

Bargain with your hotel to include breakfast and a ride to or from the airport.

Nearly every hotel I looked at (and believe me, there were scores I researched), offered free breakfast. Many also offered a one-way private transportation from the airport (Atatürk – not Sabiha Gökçen) with a stay of 3 nights, and a return service with stays of 6 nights or more.

It is possible to get to Sultanahmet from Atatürk via public transportation, but I would not have wanted to do that with the luggage we had from moving to the US. If you’re leaning toward DIY or your hotel won’t budge even when you pit different properties against each other, check out this comprehensive guide to your options as well as tips on getting from Sabiha Gökçen to Sultanahmet.Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travel: Top 10 Tips for Traveling Families.. what you need to know before taking the kids to Istanbul!You should know that even if you have a private driver waiting for you, finding him in the insane arrivals hall will be your first taste of the frenzy that awaits.

Pick a hotel in Sultanahmet or the Galata Tower (Beyoğlu) area.

By staying in one of these two areas, you’ll be within walking distance of as many sites as possible. When researching accommodation options, I (erroneously) thought that the Galata Tower area was too far away from most of the places I wanted to go. I didn’t know about the T1 tram or how easy it is to use. For an overview of the pros and cons of both areas, click here. For where not to stay, click here.Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travel: Top 10 Tips for Traveling Families.. what you need to know before taking the kids to Istanbul!

Avoid bringing a stroller if at all possible.

Istanbul isn’t known as the City of Seven Hills for nothin’. A simple walk from your hotel to the nearest tram stop becomes a tad more treacherous when you add a San Francisco-style grade to the route. If you do bring a stroller, you’ll likely save the kids’ energy but burn your own going steeply up and down all day long. It is possible to get on and off trams with a pram, but metro stations are more tricky to maneuver since most have stairs instead of elevators. Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travel: Top 10 Tips for Traveling Families.. what you need to know before taking the kids to Istanbul!

Discuss cultural and religious differences in advance.

Unless your family is well-versed in Muslim culture, your kids will likely ask questions about why the women have their heads covered and why they hear the azhan (call to prayer) broadcast over loudspeakers five times per day. Encourage them to ask questions, find commonalities, discuss their thoughts, and learn about local traditions and customs like bargaining. Also, It’s always courteous (and fun!) to learn a few simple words and phrases in the local language.Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travel: Top 10 Tips for Traveling Families.. what you need to know before taking the kids to Istanbul!

Practice restaurant manners and encourage an open mind about new foods.

My kids rarely ate in restaurants during our four years in Germany (their parents aren’t, uh, crazy about German food), so they were a bit on the rusty side when it came to table manners and how to behave in a restaurant. Thankfully, the boys are usually pretty good about trying new foods, but I thought it would be fun to make a little game of it by encouraging them to find the similarities and differences such as how Lahmacun is like pizza or Kofti is different than Italian meatballs.

Save on dinner out by sharing adult portions with your kids and declining drinks.

For our family of five – and our three boys already practically eat as much as we do, we often ordered three adult portions and licked the plates clean. No leftovers means no waste and no extra cash going to meals out. We figured we could always buy Turkish bagels or fresh juice if we needed a little something after the meal.

We bought 5L bottles of water at local convenience stores and used these to refill our smaller water bottles at the hotel. We brought snacks with us from home instead of trying to find a supermarket in Sultanahmet (good thing, too, because – well, good luck with that).

Prepare for total strangers to touch your children and offer them gifts.

This happened to us in South Korea, too, but it didn’t make it any more pleasant for me or my boys. Decide beforehand what your family’s response to such gestures will be. I tried to be polite and gently decline the candy or whisk it away as soon as the stranger left. While that might have been a noble effort, in reality my kids hated being touched by strangers. Bravo smacked a man’s hand away because, “He wasn’t my friend.” Charlie was so sick of the attention that he threw down a piece of chocolate offered to him by a flight attendant. They were OVER it.Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travel: Top 10 Tips for Traveling Families.. what you need to know before taking the kids to Istanbul!

Time your visits to popular sites when crowds are smaller and in the shoulder season whenever possible.

When we visited the Hagia Sophia first thing in the morning, we were joined by throngs of other travelers. But, when we passed by it in the late afternoon, the lines were nearly nonexistent. A fluke? Maybe. I would research the best times to visit each site on your list (you may be surprised what you find). And shoulder season is always a bargain.. if you can handle the cold!

Seek out local playgrounds to reward kids and give everyone a break.

The best playground we found (okay, the only one) in Sultanahmet was Gulhane Park. The large Gulhane green space was a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of Istanbul. The park wraps around the north and west edges of Topkapı Palace.Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travel: Top 10 Tips for Traveling Families.. what you need to know before taking the kids to Istanbul!

The Palace seemed grand from the entrance, but that’s as far as it went for us. Yes, I know you you can peek into the sultan’s harem for an a token admission fee, but we preferred to enjoy the fresh air and rare opportunity for the kids to run free.

By the way, there’s a lovely tea garden on the far (north) side of the park overlooking the water. The tea service itself is pricey by Turkish standards, but the view is absolutely free.Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travel: Top 10 Tips for Traveling Families.. what you need to know before taking the kids to Istanbul!

If you’re counting, you know we’re at 10 already, but I thought I’d toss in one more tip of a more serious nature..

Have a plan for what to do in case your family gets separated.

It’s no secret that Istanbul is incredibly crowded. Getting on and off trams and subways can be squishy business, and tourist buses can unload and overwhelm a site in an instant. Decide what to do if you get separated from one another, and know emergency numbers and phrases.

YOUR Family’s Adventure

You made it through all the tips (yeah!), and now you should have a better idea of what to consider, research, plan and look out for while in this crazy middle-eastern city.

‘Tis true – Istanbul is loud, smelly, and intense. It is NOT a destination for those seeking rest and relaxation, though I hear Turkish beaches are well-suited for such purposes. However, don’t let that discourage you from giving Istanbul a go; there’s lots to love and gems to be found in the middle of all that mayhem.Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travel: Top 10 Tips for Traveling Families.. what you need to know before taking the kids to Istanbul!

Here’s to your own family’s Turkish travel adventure!

What tips would you add from your own research or travel experience in Turkey? What do you wish you would’ve known before you went or what question are you hoping to answer before you go?

Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

All images are mine except the first one (credit).

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Expats Move Home: Do We Miss Germany?

Thrifty Travel Mama | What We Miss About Germany“Do you miss Germany?”

I get asked this all.the.time, and the answer is a resounding, YES!

The more difficult question involves what we miss about Germany, because there are things we most definitely do NOT miss. Hang on to your hats – that list is coming next.

In struggling to adapt back to American culture, I find myself often looking back on our European adventure with rose-colored glasses.

It seems that in every frustrating encounter with our broken American healthcare, every failure to communicate in my native language, every awkward social encounter with a spandex-clad, minivan-wielding soccer mom.. I want to quit. I want to give up and go back. I long for the “good ol’ days.”

But, were those olden days really… good?

If so, then what was good?

Over the past months, I’ve been compiling a list – both for you and for me. For you, the curious – and for me, the perspective. In no particular order, here is what I miss the most about living in Europe.

Travel

This is where I truly struggle the most. America boasts many treasures, and I don’t discount that fact. But, they are all American and relatively new in the history of the world.

What I adored about living in Freiburg was the ability to hop in the car and find myself in a completely different country and/or culture in a half a day’s drive (or less).Thrifty Travel Mama | What We Miss About Germany

The European landscape is littered with old castles and ancient fortresses. And, if the drive to a new place seemed too long, budget airlines like Ryanair and Easyjet made further-flung destinations just a quick flight away.

I guess the ancient old-world feel of Europe is just my style. I could explore and photograph charming provincial villages all.day.long and never tire of the rustic old stones, writhing iron, chiseled wood.

America has a different look that makes her special and unique. Sadly, Route 66 and Palm Springs just don’t do it for me. Perhaps that will change with time. For now, all I want is to be lost in the hill towns of Tuscany.

There’s also something to be said about the European idea that vacation time is a necessity, not a luxury. And while not every European can afford to spend a month in Spain, nearly every one of them receives much more time off than the average American… and the European uses it.

Riding My Bike

When we were searching for jobs last fall, Doc Sci and I desperately wanted to find and move to a walkable or bikeable community. We longed to keep some of that liberating feeling of using our own two legs to get us wherever we need to go.

While our current city is on the smaller side and thankfully doesn’t have too much traffic, it is NOT set up for getting around on two wheels.

For starters, American drivers just absolutely do not watch out for cyclists. I know, because I used to be one of those drivers. Retraining my brain to check the bike lane at every intersection in Germany was not easy, and I constantly worried about accidentally hitting a pedestrian or cyclist.Thrifty Travel Mama | What We Miss About Germany

Here in the US, you’re often taking your life in your hands using the bike lane. I know some people do it and don’t die. But with kids? Forget it.

I have tried riding on the sidewalk with the boys to a few places only to discover that sidewalks exist only on certain streets, abruptly beginning or ending without rhyme or reason. It’s there one block and gone the next. Rarely do the sidewalks extend along the full length of our route, forcing us to venture onto the actual road (yikes).

I guess we’ll have to stick with mountain biking or cycling nature trails. Enjoyable – but not at all the same.

Simplicity of Food

You can find many American foods in German supermarkets such as Coca Cola, Oreos, Pringles, etc.; but beware – these goods are not exactly the same. Sure, American Oreos and German Oreos share a common product name, but the ingredient lists are not identical!

American packaged food is often full of chemicals – preservatives, artificial colors, fake sugars. In Germany, soda is made with real sugar, and artificial ingredients are uncommon due to strict labeling laws and a population of consumers that prefer things au natural.

If I want to buy a simple bag of pretzel sticks in the US, I have to search multiple brands and products in order to find one with a short ingredient list and few allergens (and they ALL have sugar!).

Not one single product could boast an ingredient list like the ubiquitous German Salzstangen: flour, water, oil, salt, malt, and yeast.Thrifty Travel Mama | What We Miss About Germany

In Deutschland, we grew accustomed to eating whole foods; only rarely did we buy something prepared. In the US, it often feels impossible to find raw ingredients for a decent price. Why is it that packaged food costs less in America than simple pantry staples?

No Bags at the Grocery Store

Can this really be a thing to miss? I have never been much of a staunch environmentalist (though I do think it’s important to care about the earth), but I appreciate a minimalist approach to life, especially with kids.

I have three growing boys, and they want to eat three meals a day and two snacks for some reason (the nerve!). As you can imagine, we buy a car-ful of groceries every week.

At first, I brought my reusable bags everywhere. But, I often forgot to hand them over before the cashier started bagging my items (often double bagging!). I ended up with bushels and bushels of these stupid nuisances within just a few weeks.

The waste drives me nuts; and the effort to recycle them is just one.more.thing to remember when I shop. Now, I just leave the reusable bags in the car and ask for no bags or use the self-checkout when I want to avoid the stares and comments (are you SURE you don’t want ANY bags?!).

Banking

During our cross-country move, I ducked into a store to grab a few things for dinner at the hotel. The woman in front of me in line whipped out a checkbook to pay for her groceries. A check?! Who pays with a check?

The cashier didn’t even know how to process the thing. I just stared. What is this, the 90s?

Nope, it’s 2015 in America – but, we’re still living in the dark ages of banking.

If you want to pay someone in Germany, you simply ask for their bank account number, and you transfer the money. It’s simple and free. Stores accept cash, debit, and sometimes credit. Chip and PIN cards and TAN blocks make transactions secure. If you’re curious, you can read more about German banking here.

While e-banking has changed by leaps and bounds since 2010 and nearly every business accepts some form of electronic payment, the last holdouts still cling to the comfort of old-fashioned checks. I have at least two payees that only accept cash, check, or money order (speaking of relics..). The sooner these antiquated bits of paper make their way from pocketbooks to museums, the better.

Freedom to Roam

Did you know that first graders in Germany are expected to walk themselves to and from school? Sure, parents are encouraged to show the kids the way, even walk the route with them a few times to practice. But then the parents should leave the child be to walk alone.

I’ll admit, I am not ready to give my seven year-old that kind of freedom. But, I do think he should be able to play on our street and in our neighborhood and work up to walking to the park or library by himself when he’s ready. Thrifty Travel Mama | What We Miss About Germany

I want my kids to roam freely without fear that I will face repercussions for allowing such actions. Tsh from The Art of Simple discusses her wish for the same thing and gives a rallying cry that we, as a culture, need to stop blaming and start trusting our neighbors and each other. Amen.

Along with allowing our kids the freedom to wander, Germans allow their children to take risks. Playgrounds in Deutschland are full of every kind of wonder that would never be allowed on American soil. The risk of injury and subsequent lawsuit is just too great in the US.

Thrifty Travel Mama | What We Miss About Germany

German playgrounds don’t sport signs or warnings such as those pictured here.

Fresh Bread

Ask a German in the US what they miss about home, and the words BREAD and BAKERIES will come flying out of their mouth. I never understood why they thought their carbs were so much better. Up until 2010, I ate squishy loaves with the rest of America, laden with dozens of ingredients, multiple allergens, and a hearty dose of preservatives.

In Germany, every grocery store offers freshly baked bread, sans preservatives. Some stores like Lidl even offer a machine where you can slice the whole loaves yourself. Bakeries exist on nearly every corner. Why? Bread is important to Germans, and – I’ll let you in on a little secret – that bread tastes amazing when it’s fresh.

Fast forward to 2014. We’re back in the US, hunting the local store for something to bookend turkey and cheese.

First, we check ingredients; lists read like a food science textbook. None can stick with the basics like flour, yeast, salt, and water. I decide I’ll be generous and settle for allowing a bit of sugar or honey. But no, even this is not enough. I have to wade through -ates and -ites and countless dough conditioners (what the CRAP are those?).

Giving up, we then move on to the squeeze test. If the loaf squishes easily like your favorite pillow, it’s out. Each package crumples like a deflated balloon with the slightest touch.

Nearly a year later, we still have yet to find a great bread here that isn’t made from scratch at home or costs $5+ a loaf. If you know of one, please share it in the comments below.

German Speakers

Over the course of four years, I grew accustomed to hearing German spoken and the quiet that surrounded my lack of fluency. And, since I lived in a university town, I shared the streets with people from all over the world. My neighbors were from Israel, Ghana, India, Tunisia, and China. I loved that.

Yes, America is very diverse and many cities in the US host various ethnic populations. Just not my city. It’s starkly… white. And, considering it’s Arizona, I rarely even hear Spanish being spoken.

Earlier this year, I saw two young men that looked to be from India walking out of Costco as I was walking in. I fought the urge to rush over and ask them where they hung out, where they bought Indian groceries, what the best places were to eat Indian food. In the end, I restrained myself. Out of context, my questions might come across as, well, creepy. I didn’t want to be the one to scare off the only Indians in the city!

Wrap Up

Well, there you have it. All the things I miss and can’t easily obtain in my current place and time. Our German expat experience was incredible; but, it wasn’t all castles and chocolate. For the things I don’t miss, come back on Wednesday.

What things do you miss from a place you used to live or visit frequently? What did you do to cope?

Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

 

American Marvel: First Thoughts on Reentry

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: A Series of Posts our Family's Repatriation ExperienceI wrote my first draft of this post on October 31, 2014. It’s… raw.

That post where I marvel at America and all the ways she has changed since we left, the one where I try desperately not to nit pick, and the one where I take an honest look in the mirror — it’s here.

After brief jaunts in Leipzig and Istanbul, we touched down at Dulles on the very day that US passport control rolled out a more meticulous ebola screening program. Nothing like waiting forty-five minutes with squirmy boys for your first, “welcome back.”

Well, okay, waiting is something we became accustomed to in Germany. But customer service? THAT was our first clue that we certainly weren’t in Kansas anymore.

At the rental car counter later that evening, I felt like an accidental tourist at La Tomatina. The agent’s words were flung at me in rapid fire sequence.

“HI! I’M CARRIE AND I’LL BE TAKING CARE OF YOU TODAY!! HOW ARE YOU DOING? HOW WAS YOUR FLIGHT?! CAN I GET YOU SOMETHING TO DRINK? WOULD YOU LIKE TO UPGRADE YOUR RENTAL CAR? NO? HOW ABOUT NOW? ARE YOU SURE YOU DON’T WANT TO UPGRADE? IT’S ONLY SEVENTY BUCKS! WHAT A GREAT DEAL! WHAT ABOUT NOW? STILL NO? OKAY! YOU HAVE A GREAT DAY NOW!! COME BACK AND SEE US AGAIN!”

And it really was just like that – her speech was all caps and her personality all pep. I could only blink, mouth agape. I flinched at every line. Her volume and intensity were just a bit much for me to handle straight out of the gate. I had become so accustomed to the quiet.

When our rental car rolled up, my jaw dropped even further. They must have confused our reservation. Surely, this double-decker bus was not in the minivan category. I must have scored some kind of free upgrade. The car we drove in Germany was a “van.” THIS, this was something for transporting elephants, rhinos, prehistoric mammals, cargo.

What would we do with all that extra space?! Even with our five carry-ons, five backpacks, and two checked bags, we still could still do “airplane arms” without smacking each other in the face.

All of this, and we hadn’t even left the airport.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: Notes on Reverse Culture Shock

We’re like ducks out of water, electric hair and wide eyes.

The past weeks have been like this for us. Everything strange, different, absolutely gigantic. My goodness, I can’t even touch the back of the clothes dryer without crawling in there myself.

The houses, the cars, the ovens, the burgers, the boxes of breakfast cereal, the shopping centers.. they’re all incredibly super-sized. I’m thoroughly convinced that the entire downtown shopping district of Freiburg would fit within the confines of one Super Walmart.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Reverse Culture Shock: First Thoughts on Reentry

This bag of Nearly Naked popcorn is nearly the size of my five year-old!

And the people… Oh, America, you make me sad. We are so sick, so unhealthy, so shockingly overweight. We are such a wealthy country and yet the bodies around me scream that even with all our excess, we are still looking for happiness in the newest flavor of Oreos or the hottest, newly-redesigned, expensive SUV.

What a crisis we are in with obesity! When I first arrived, I wondered how could this be so?

It didn’t take long to figure it out – (1) we don’t move our bodies other than from the couch to the car and (2) there are SO many delicious things to eat here. I know I said this before, but have you SEEN the Oreo aisle?!

Honestly, we as a nation need to sober up. We ought to be ashamed at how much food we consume – and throw away! – when there are so many in our world performing unmentionable acts and deeds just to eat once per day.

Yes, there are starving people in Africa, but Americans seem to forget there are starving people right here in our own community… and they are hidden in plain sight. They’re the kids stealing from that same Oreo aisle. Don’t believe me? Add Breaking Night to your reading list. You’ll never look at a tube of Chapstick the same way again.

 

Thrifty Travel Mama | Reverse Culture Shock: First Thoughts on Reentry

Spotted at a grocery store in the Netherlands…

This is my third weekend in America. On the first two weekends, I took walks in different neighborhoods in different cities. If I saw anyone outside, it was a lone adult. No kids, no families, no exercise, no games, no old-fashioned fun. I had forgotten that Americans don’t go for walks or play outside the way Germans do. If we exercise, we do it at home or at a gym. Why not outside in nature? Are we afraid? Bored? Uncomfortable? Inconvenienced?

I use the words “we” and “us” because as much as this country is foreign to me now, it is my country, my home land. I used to work out in a gym, I used to drive everywhere, I never went for walks, I used to eat only packaged/prepared food.

As much as I feel like an outsider, my passport says I’m not. I know the way things work in this country, where to go if I need something, and how to ask if I don’t. I can’t comment from the sidelines anymore; I’m back in the game.

In our marveling at each re-discovery, Doc Sci and I have the best of intentions not to let our wonder devolve into negativity. I think it’s okay to walk through each emotion (shock, sadness, confusion, wonder) as long as you don’t stay there indefinitely.

Due to the fact that our family has needed to just survive the last eight months, I’ve resigned myself to striving to end the string of discouraging thoughts on a neutral note – it just is what it is. Ultimately, I hope my feelings toward this culture and repatriation can grow roots in the positive, asking myself how I can change, how I can encourage others to change.

Have you ever left the US for a while and returned to find things you once considered normal to be completely foreign? 

Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

A Family of Hobos We Have Been

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

This is one of my insanely long posts. Instead of just passing it off as tl;dr, make yourself a cuppa and stay a while… or just skim the headers. We can still be friends.

We are that crazy family… the one that others sometimes speak of as brave when they really mean insane.

In case you’re new ’round these parts and aren’t sure if I’m for real about the nutty bit, this post should convince you.

The Overview

Rewind with me to last autumn. We left our home in Freiburg at the beginning of October 2014, and ended up in Arizona just shy of New Year’s Eve. Seems simple, right? Ha – not so fast.

Hang on to your hats and follow along on our ride from Germany to Arizona via a dozen other destinations.. with all the madness and mayhem in between!

Please note that I am including some links to posts that have not been published yet. If you discover one of these, you can bookmark this post and come back later to read the linked posts, or you can just follow the blog via email (sign up on the right) or Facebook to be notified of all future posts.

By the way, if you’re reading these posts for the culture shock aspect, I’ll be honest and admit that recapping the events below is difficult for me. There are certain aspects of living in Freiburg that I miss somethin’ fierce, and I get a bit choked up when I dwell on certain memories for too long. So keep in mind that this adventure is two parts insane, one part pain.

Leaving Freiburg

Moving is never easy, and moving from one continent to another just multiplies the trouble. The ins and outs of our move is beyond the scope of this post, but I will briefly mention that we shipped most of our things to the US via DHL. Because of this, we did not have to schlep ten, fifty-pound checked suitcases and three children. Just the three kids, they’re non-negotiable.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

Testing out the new headphone splitter and learning to share one small DVD player.

Instead, all five of us all had backpacks and carry-on suitcases. Additionally, we took two gigantic checked bags and a car seat bag. If my math is right, that’s 13 pieces of luggage.

Hey, I never said I’m a pro at moving light – just packing light.

We bid Freiburg farewell and boarded a train to Leipzig. When we changed trains in Frankfurt, and Alpha and I literally ran to Chipotle in the rain to fetch one last German burrito. While there, we bumped into old friends from the US I haven’t seen in over ten years, also getting their burrito fix. Super fun, and super random. It’s a small (Mexican food) world, indeed.

Leipzig and Dresden

In Leipzig, Doc Sci attended one last conference for his post-doc while I had a fun meet-up and playdate with a blog reader (hi, Rose!). I also took the boys to Dresden… by myself.

Gulp.

Istanbul

After three days in the City of Heroes (Stadt der Helden), we flew to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines. Turkish offered the cheapest fare, and it actually turned out to be even less expensive to stay in Istanbul for 3 days on a stopover rather than going straight to the US.

We experienced three intense days in Istanbul, soaking up as much as we could of the local flavor and Turkish culture. Stay tuned for a budget-friendly “Istanbul with Kids” series!Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

Welcome to America

Our first stop in the US was Washington Dulles to visit family.

Of course (of course!), we landed on the day that the extra special screening for Ebola at passport control rolled out. Not exactly the best welcome to be stuck in customs/immigration for hours…

The boys enjoyed a weekend running crazy with the cousins. All five kids took advantage of a favorite autumn pastime – jumping in gigantic piles of leaves.Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

Orlando

We then flew to Orlando to reunited with friends, boxes shipped from Germany, and our car.

The last time we drove our car, Charlie was in an infant seat. Now, we have three lanky boys, all in forward-facing car seats. We shoved, pulled, squished, and prayed that three car seats would fit in the back row… of our Honda Civic.

In the end, we managed – but just barely. Good thing, too, because this car was to be our home for the next two months.

During our time in Orlando, Doc Sci started applying for jobs. We took turns hanging out with the kids and searching for open positions. At night, we both researched universities, cities, companies; we emailed out CVs and cover letters.

We dreamed, and we prayed.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

We celebrated the birthdays of Bravo and Alpha while on the road, one at the Lego store…

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

…and one at Legoland!

Nashville

Just before Thanksgiving, we road-tripped up to Nashville for a change of scenery. We set up camp at Grandma’s house, hung out with friends and family in Music City, and applied for more jobs.

It was during our stay in Tennessee that Doc Sci had a phone interview with the university that eventually hired him. But, we didn’t know that at the time, so after two weeks, we then set our sights on the Big D.

Dallas

One of our Freiburg friends is from the Dallas area (hi, Cheril!), and her parents were up for letting five dazed and confused ex-expat strangers take over half of their house. Generous souls!

We drove from Nashville to Dallas, and unpacked the car once again. More fabulous reunions with friends in the heart of Texas, employment meetings and emails, spelling tests, and math worksheets.

This is beginning to be a repetitive story, eh?

The News – and the Dilemma

Somewhere in the middle of the Metroplex, we got the call that a university in Arizona wanted to offer Doc Sci a visiting professor position for the spring semester.

Great news – except for one thing. The job started in less than one month.

Oh my.

Should we say accept the position? Should we move for a job that was not guaranteed for more than four months?

Beyond the philosophical, we also faced a physical dilemma. We stood, at that moment, halfway in between the Arizona job and our stored possessions in Florida.

Should we attempt to rent something furnished and run the risk of having to go back to Florida if the job turned out to be permanent? Or, should we go get our things in Florida now?

To complicate things further, Doc Sci had set up an in-person meeting in Atlanta for two days later.

Seriously?

Seriously.

What did we do? Why, we packed up the kids and drove to Atlanta, of course!Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

Atlanta

One more interview and less than twenty four hours in Atlanta later, we were zooming down I-75 on the way to Orlando again. We were positively sick of being on the road, but we needed those four hundred and fifty miles to discuss whether or not we would move to Arizona.

Orlando.. Again

Ultimately, we said yes. And, we took our stuff.

Just shy of two weeks after that major decision, we emptied our storage unit, packed a truck, and said goodbye to Orlando.

Road Trip!

Over the next week, we logged a minimum of eight hours of solid driving each day – not including breaks – to make it to Arizona as soon as possible. We needed to have at least one week to move into a house and prepare for Doc Sci to teach (for the very first time, I might add).

I drove our car with the three boys in the backseat, and Doc Sci manhandled the moving truck. If there’s such thing as an ideal road trip, this was the exact opposite.

We encountered some of the most intense rain I have ever driven through, a hail storm while on the “stilts” of I-10 in Louisiana with no place to pull over, snow in Texas, and ice in New Mexico.

I had done my best before we left to buy new DVDs, arrange little goody bags, dollar store toys.. you know, all those cutesy things you see on Pinterest.

But, after a couple thousand miles and sitting ALL DAY LONG for days on end, things got pretty frazzled in the back seat (okay, in the front seat, too).

Hey, at least no one threw up.Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

Dallas.. Again

The one bright spot was spending Christmas Eve and Day with our new friends in Dallas (remember those nice people that let perfect strangers take over half of their home?) and the rest of their family.

We’ll always remember 2014 as the Christmas where we literally could not uphold any traditions (no Adventskranz, Adventskalendar, cookie swaps, or gingerbread) and barely managed to fill the stockings. Instead, we received the fabulous gifts of generosity and hospitality from strangers turned friends. Humbling, indeed.

Arizona, Finally!

We rang in the new year at a hotel in Arizona, roasting marshmallows in the fake fire pit outside.

Hey, it could be worse. We had survived our road trip, and we were all healthy and alive!

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

Happy New Year!

Unfortunately, the house we rented wasn’t ready for us to move in until after Doc Sci started working. In the meantime, I shopped with the kids in the mornings, looking for basic furniture for our new home. When we moved to Germany, we gave nearly everything away because it didn’t make financial sense to store it.

In the afternoons, the boys did school while Charlie napped. When Doc Sci came home from work, I left to do more shopping and research.

Home…?

On moving day, we pulled up to our new house and found that all the vendors (painters, cleaners, etc.) had packed down the snow in the driveway, leaving us a housewarming present of a two-inch thick slab of solid ice on which to unload our things.

A kind neighbor lent us a snow shovel; the boys chipped away at the ice while Doc Sci and I tried not to break any bones.

Insert snarky comment about how with America’s fabulous system of healthcare, we wouldn’t have had coverage for any ice-related injuries since Doc Sci had not started work yet…

Once we were moved in, Doc Sci had to turn his attention back to the paying customers – students – leaving me to assemble the furniture, unpack, and set up our home.

After sleeping in twenty different beds in a mere two months, we felt like guests in our new-ish house with brand new furniture. The scars of pro-hoboing must be deep because even after six months here, that feeling has just started to subside.

Since the job in Arizona was only temporary, I wasn’t exactly motivated to really move in – you know, hang pictures, decorate, make things “for real.” Plus, it was hard doing everything alone.

Doc Sci left early in the morning, worked all day, came home for dinner, and then worked again until nearly midnight almost every night in an effort to stay at least one class ahead of the students.

I know this is reality for many families, but it was new to me and just.one.more. adjustment coupled with all the other changes.

The Bright Spot

The bright spot in all of this was that the two of us did not grow apart, though that would have been rather easy to do. We both worked hard in different ways, and we respected each other’s efforts. We asked for help when we absolutely needed it, and gave as much as we could to each other in that time.

Looking back, I do not know how we made it through apart from the grace of God.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

Hiking in Arizona!

Our kids managed to overlook our flawed and stressful selves. Although they moaned and complained here and there about having to do school, I think they were just so relieved to not be hobos anymore.

I love to travel, but those months were an adventure I surely do not want to experience ever again.

Things are looking up for us now, maybe because it is summer break or because we have made some friends here and we don’t have any more boxes to unpack. I do still have more pictures to hang and projects I think would make this place more like home. But, we’re getting there. I can feel it. Inch by inch, centimeter by centimeter, minute by minute, day by day. We’re making it.

How about you? Have you ever had to move from place to place, looking for a job? Has a new location shifted your life in a big way?Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

Visiting Croatia in the Off-Season

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-SeasonWe’re bidding farewell to our Croatian Family Adventure today with a chat about visiting the Dalmatian Coast during the off-season.

My ideal travel destination is naturally gorgeous, affordable (okay, cheap), and away from the tourist crowds. If this is your cup of tea as well, then you may be considering visiting Croatia sometime other than the jam-packed summer months.

Though Paris is a beauty even in the dead of winter and Rothenburg is quiet when it rains, it’s possible to do and see almost everything even when the tour buses are absent. But Croatia? Not so much.Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-Season

It’s worth sitting down and deciding what your family really wants to experience in Dalmatia before booking flights or accommodation. Below, I’ve highlighted pros and cons to visiting during the off-season, which I would categorize as anything outside June, July, and August.Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-Season

Drawbacks of visiting Croatia in off-season…

  • Ferry service to the islands is limited. If you want to see more than 1 or 2 islands, I would recommend hopping from island to island instead of trying to do day trips from the mainland. This will require quite a bit of logistical planning on your part since you’ll need to see if accommodation is available (see the next bullet, below) while simultaneously checking ferry timetables and researching ground transportation options to get from the port to the hotel and back.
  • Many attractions, restaurants, and hotels are closed for the winter. Some are even closed in spring and fall.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-Season

  • Even if you’re able to arrange accommodation and transportation to experience the islands, they’re rather deserted when it’s not high season. Don’t expect party central.
  • The weather can be downright COLD. In fact, we had the heat on in the first two apartments we rented… in April. If you were planning to lounge around on the terrace at your vacation rental, just know that you’ll be doing so bundled up. Croatia also has this freakish freezing wind known as the bura, or brrrrrrrra.
  • The water is too cold to swim and going to the beach is only for those who enjoy a slow form of torture involving said wind, sand, and sensitive corneas.
  • This one’s only for the carnivores, but the infamous road-side meat stands on the way to Plitvice Lakes and along other Croatian highways aren’t open. You won’t be able to watch a whole pig or sheep being roasted and then partake of the freshly cooked flesh (vegetarians, rejoice).

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-SeasonNow, on to the benefits of visiting during off-season..

  • Smaller crowds! This might seem insignificant, but when you’re walking the walls of Dubrovnik or hopping over waterfalls at Plitvice, you’ll be thanking your lucky stars that even though you’re freezing your bum off, you have room to breathe and appreciate what you’re seeing without constantly being elbowed and jostled.
  • Ferry tickets are plentiful. In summer, you can be stuck in long lines hoping that the particular ship you want to sail on is not sold out.
  • You can enjoy the Croatian national pastime of drinking coffee in cafes for hours with locals instead of tourists.
  • Though the availability is limited, the prices for hotels and vacation rentals are reduced and some attractions are even free.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-Season

  • If you’re dying to see Plitvice, remember that water levels are highest in the spring after the snow melts which translates to some pretty powerful waterfalls.
  • The heat is tolerable. I remember walking the walls of Dubrovnik in April and nearly baking in the sun. It must be hotter than you-know-what up there in August, and crowded with cruise ship day-trippers to boot.
  • Traffic!! If you’re driving to Dubrovnik from Split or vice versa, you should know that the only way in and out is a two-lane highway on the edge of the sea. Traffic on this road in summer is a total beast. Also, the lines at border crossings for Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro will be much shorter during the off-season.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-SeasonIn spite of (and also because of) all of the reasons above, I still think we would have chosen to visit Croatia during the off-season had we known all of this in advance (we didn’t).

But, when we go back, we’ll aim for September. The locals I talked to all recommended going in September because the summer crowds are gone but the water is still warm enough to swim. Just don’t tell the tour groups that…Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-Season

My advice if you want to go to Croatia is to GO NOW. The country is fabulous, but it’s starting to realize this fact. And once it does, the danger to allow tacky tourism in for the sake of the income will be rather irresistible.

Ripping off foreigners in the form of outrageous admission fees for non-locals (which is the case already in places like Russia) is another potential problem for travelers. Some towns like Dubrovnik are already totally touristy which means expensive prices, questionable quality, and many “souvenirs” made in China. Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-Season

But, there are still many, many places to experience authentic Croatia, and I highly recommend creating a Dalmatian family adventure of your own, posthaste!

Now that you know the pros and cons, would you visit Croatia during the off-season? Or is the warm weather and water too important for your family to miss?Signature Thrifty Travel MamaThis post is part of Our Croatian Family Adventure: Ten Days on the Dalmatian Coast series.  Click on the link to view our bucket list and recaps of each excursion!

Thrifty Tricks for Using Your Smart Phone While Travelling

Even though I have a Pinterest board dedicated to Travel Apps for Kids & Families, I have a confession to make.. I don’t use travel apps very often. Perhaps it’s because I don’t have an iPhone (yet), or perhaps it’s because I feel overwhelmed by zillions of options and little time to explore them, but I’ll admit I’m completely behind the times in this area.

So, I am thrilled to not only share today’s guest post with you but also to read and learn for myself about the thrifty ways you can use your smart phone while traveling.

The tips and tricks below are written by my friend and fellow travel planning nerd, Nancy. She’s currently a part-time expat and the inspiration behind many of our family’s hikes and outdoor adventures.

“Now, where do we go?”

Invariably, our arrival at any new destination starts with this question. My husband and son look at me as they ask, confident that I—omnipotent mommy and family travel planner—will have the answer for them.

In response, I whip out my not-so-secret weapon against the unknown: my iPhone.

Smart phones are the perfect travel tools. With a smart phone in your backpack, you have a compass, a GPS, a star gazing tool, an elaborate gaming system, a camera and a library of hundreds of books on a device that weighs less than a pound. (We’ve come a long way from the days when I would tear out irrelevant pages in my travel guide to reduce the weight of my pack.)

Perfect, right? Well, almost.

Smart phones come with one major limitation while travelling. Once you are outside the area covered by your local cellular provider, downloading and sending data, making phone calls, and sending text messages can get (really) expensive. We’ve all heard the stories of unfortunate souls who have forgotten this and ended up with an outrageous cell phone bill.

Top 3 thrifty tips for using your smart phone while travelling abroad:

1)   Ask your cellular service provider if they have special international rates. Sometimes you can buy an international package that will reduce the costs for phoning and texting and will allow you a limited amount of data use abroad.

2)   Buy prepaid local SIM cards when you land at your destination. These are usually found in supermarkets, drug stores, or kiosks all over the world. Use Google or a local expat forum to find out where to buy SIM cards, average rates, and recommended brands.

3)   Simply turn off the cellular roaming data option on your phone and avoid making or receiving phone calls or text messages. (In other words, don’t answer any phone calls or texts.) Also, double check with your cellular service provider that you won’t be charged for incoming calls or texts, even if you don’t answer them.

Surprisingly, turning off the cellular data and ignoring the phone functions of my iPhone has been a good solution for me, especially when I have decent access to Wi-Fi to ease the pain of disconnection.

And, the lack of a cellular data plan doesn’t mean that you have to leave your phone at  home while you are out and about. There are some easy ways to use your smart phone even when you don’t have a local plan or data abilities.

Four great tricks for using your smart phone without a data connection:

1)   Use offline maps and navigation systems like Mapswithme and TomTom.

The GPS on your smart phone likely works even when you don’t have cellular data coverage. (You can Google the make and model number of your smart phone to check if your device has this ability).

To use the GPS system without cell access, you also need to have an offline map. There are offline maps available for most destinations, but our favourite offline map app is Mapswithme, an open source map system that covers most of the world.

Once you have downloaded the Mapswithme app, you then individually download the country maps that you will need on your trip. This feature allows you to choose only the maps you need in order to save space on your device.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Thrifty Ways to Use Your Smart Phone While Traveling

The blue arrow shows your location on the map.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Thrifty Ways to Use Your Smart Phone While Traveling

You can zoom into a high resolution view.

We have used this app to mark destinations like parking lots and trail heads; and we use it constantly when we are walking around a new place to find anything of interest. Mapswithme has saved us several times from taking the wrong turn while on a ramble through a new city.

Mapswithme also has lots of hiking and biking trails on it, which has been very helpful to us in New Zealand, North America, and Europe. My husband and I used the app on an overnight hike in New Zealand as a distance guide.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Thrifty Ways to Use Your Smart Phone While Traveling

You can drop a pin on the map and then click on it to see how far away you are. The distance from your pin is shown underneath your arrow. Unfortunately, we are very far away from New Zealand right now.

You can place a pin on any destination and when you click on the pin, the info screen will tell you how far away you are from the pin in a direct line. You can also upload a trail map or travel route to Mapswithme and monitor your progress on a trip.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Thrifty Ways to Use Your Smart Phone While Traveling

You can upload trails and routes to Mapswithme.

This app does have one major limitation: It doesn’t provide spoken directions when driving.

When we do need navigation help for driving, we use an offline navigator from TomTom. This is an expensive app, but it has proven useful several times and was well worth the value. Mapswithme is a good companion to the TomTom app. If I’m unsure of where TomTom is leading us, I double check with Mapswithme.

2)   Download offline travel guides with Scribd.

I use Scribd, a subscription-based app that lets me download an unlimited number of books for a very reasonable price (under $10 per month). The Scribd library includes all of the Lonely Planet guides, and other travel guides as well.

On a recent trip to Provence, I downloaded the Lonely Planet guide for this area onto my phone before we left. When we visited a new city, I would look up the city in the guide, choose the most important sights, and take advantage of the highly detailed maps in the book to figure out where we needed to start and what we wanted to see.

In addition, I use Scribd extensively just for reading. Imagine taking your local public library with you on a trip. Bonus!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Thrifty Ways to Use Your Smart Phone While Traveling

A list of all of the travel books that I have downloaded to my device in Scribd.

3)   Store travel plans and electronic tickets in Google Drive.

I usually make extensive travel itineraries for my family. It helps me know who has to be where and when. But I don’t like carrying paper. Google Drive is a service that lets you store and access documents from any computer or device. I create a folder for our trip in Google Drive, and I upload a detailed itinerary and all of the reservation and ticket documents to this folder.

To ensure that I have access to our travel documents even when I don’t have a data connection, I open the Google Drive app on my phone, open the documents I might want to access, and check off the option which will prompt the system to keep on offline version on my device. I’m sure that this would also work with other online storage systems like Dropbox .

The advantage of storing your documents in Google Drive or Dropbox is that you can access them in a pinch from any device or computer.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Thrifty Ways to Use Your Smart Phone While Traveling

My travel folder in Google Drive.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Thrifty Ways to Use Your Smart Phone While Traveling

Offline versions of boarding passes. Note that I have checked the “Keep an online version” option.

4)   Find free Wi-Fi.

I’ve become good at finding free Wi-Fi when I need to really connect. Free Wi-Fi is less common in Europe and New Zealand than in North America, but it does exist. For instance, Starbucks in Germany offers a free connection for two hours. This does help take the edge off life without a good Internet connection.

I have used the Wi-Fi Finder app, but have found it to be out-of-date. I’ve had better luck just keeping my eyes open. A couple of weeks ago in Switzerland, we visited Chillon, a medieval castle and popular tourist destination that offered free Wi-Fi with the price of admission.

Although I do prefer to be connected to the Internet at all times (like every minute of the day!), I have found travelling without a data connection to be possible and even preferable as I’m not constantly worried about how much money I’m spending every time I check the map.

And I’m still always able to tell my family where we are and where we should head to next!

So, how do you use your smart phone while travelling? Any other tricks to share?

Nancy (aka Twigg3d) is a Canadian traveller, writer, teacher and iPhone addict. In recent years, she has been travelling with her husband and son back and forth between Canada, Germany and New Zealand. Anyone who knows her will find it hard to believe that she can survive without the Internet even for a minute.

 

 

 

What You Need to Know About Taking a Night Train in Germany with Kids

Traveling by train in Germany is one of the easiest ways to get around. We’ve ridden the rails numerous times, but this past April was the first time I attempted to take a child on the overnight train.

Known as the City Night Line (CNL) here in Deutschland, these trains travel slowly, stopping at various points along the route and (usually) arriving after the sun is up at the desired destination.

Although I hadn’t slept on a CNL train before this trip, I did have a smattering of sleeper train experience. I took the overnight train between Moscow and St. Petersburg when I first visited in 2001 and more often when I lived there in 2003. I had no idea how the trains in Germany would compare to those in Russia.

Lucky for me, my husband took the same night train for a work trip two weeks before I went with solo with Alpha to the Netherlands and back. Thanks to him, I had a heads up on the differences before I even left home.

To read about our mama-son adventure to Keukenhof Gardens in the Netherlands, click here!

Alpha is my oldest, a very brave and grown-up six year-old. He was thrilled to be the boy chosen to accompany me (er, indulge my floral fancy) on our whirlwind Dutch adventure.

On the evening of our departure, I put him to bed at home as usual, only he slept in his street clothes instead of pajamas. Our train was scheduled to depart at 11pm. I woke him around 10:15pm; we slipped on our shoes and strapped on our backpacks. We walked to the tram that took us to the train station, and then sat on the platform waiting for the CNL to roll in.

A collection of random but very important things to know about the City Night Line trains in Germany:

  • Reservations are compulsory. You must select and book the kind of overnight accommodation you want – reclining seat, couchette, or proper sleeping car. And if you cancel your ticket, you do not get the money for the reservation back. In our case, the reservation cost about 60 euros.
  • Though I am thrifty and all, it is well worth the money to pay for a four-berth couchette. The cabins are small, and I would not want to be sharing that tiny space with five other adults. And the reclining seat? Forget it.
  • If you wish, you can reserve a space to bring your bike along for a small fee.
  • Sleeping cabins are mixed, men and women. Each train has one women-only compartment, but this must be booked at the train station.  I was able to reserve beds in this cabin with my son since he was young enough, but it took several employees and a manager before I received approval.
  • You cannot select whether you want an upper or lower berth online. If this is important to you, you’ll need to book this with Deutsche Bahn in person or over the phone.
  • An announcement that serves as a train-wide wake-up call is made on the train at 7am. If your station is scheduled to be before 7am, you can request that the steward wake you up.
  • Some trains have electrical outlets in the cabins, some don’t. The only other outlets I found were in the sink washrooms.
  • For couchette and reclining seat train cars, there are two sink rooms and a toilet located at the end of the car. For proper sleeping cars, toilets and sinks are located inside the cabins.
  • Doors have several locks that can be fastened from the inside. Leave them locked, but be aware you might have to wake up if your cabin is not full and more passengers are coming later in the night.
  • The train stops often and the lights at each station can shine brightly into the cabin window. Expert tip: bring an eye mask to wear while sleeping.
  • More expensive sleeper cabins come with a complimentary breakfast. Couchette and reclining seat passengers can purchase breakfast from the dining car or bring their own.
  • If your train crosses an international border, be sure to pack your passport as it could be inspected. A check was performed when Doc Sci took the CNL, but not when I did.
  • For loads of more great tips, see Seat 61.

When the white and red CNL cars arrived, we located our assigned wagon and climbed aboard. Once inside the cabin, I helped Alpha make the beds. Each passenger in the couchette is given a small pillow, a blanket, and a rectangular sheet that’s open on two sides and sewn shut on the other two. We arranged the sheets so that the opening was toward the middle of the cabin, fluffed the pillows, and placed the blanket on top.

Six berth couchette cabin. (image)

Six berth couchette cabin. (image)

A trip to the potty was followed by goodnight hugs and kisses. We donned our fancy shmancy eye masks and allowed ourselves to be lulled to sleep by the motion of the train.

Alpha woke me up a few minutes before the blaring 7am we’re-now-leaving-Germany-so-sleep-time-is-over announcement. We feasted on German rolls, yogurt, and juice that we’d brought along in our packs. The train ambled in to Utrecht around 8:30am where we changed to a commuter train headed for Schipol where we could catch a bus to Keukenhof.

Reclining seats on CNL trains. (image)

Reclining seats on CNL trains. (image)

Only twelve hours but thousands of tulips later, we were at it again, boarding another CNL train in Amsterdam headed back home.

We felt like pros, setting up our sheets, stowing our packs, and pulling out our eye masks. However, one thing was different – on this train, we were assigned one upper and one lower berth.

On the previous night’s train, we both slept below. Alpha sleeps on the top bunk every night at home, so he wanted to try the same thing on the train. I worried he might fall, but I shouldn’t have. The upper berths are slightly concave and feature decent guardrails. However, if you are also concerned about your child rolling out of bed, see below for a few tips on how to reduce the risk.

Since our arrival into our city’s main train station was scheduled for 5:55am, I requested a wake-up call from the steward. Just to be safe, I also set an alarm on my phone for 5:35am. The attendant rapped on the glass precisely 15 minutes before our station and waited until I opened the door and confirmed I was, indeed, awake.

Safety note: Don’t open the door unless you are expecting someone. Random “passport checks” in the middle of the night are usually a scam.

The boy and I slipped on our shoes and our backpacks and quietly left the other two ladies to slumber all the way to Zurich while we greeted the morning in our home city.

Would I take the overnight train with kids again? Absolutely!

But, how would that work with our little Charlie, who still sleeps in a crib?

Four berth couchette cabin. (image)

Four berth couchette cabin. (image)

I asked a good friend who often travels with her four kids (ages 0, 2, 4, and 6!) on the CNL to Hamburg for a few tips on taking the night train with infants and toddlers.

  • First and foremost, the attitude of the parents almost always determines the success of the venture. (This holds true for nearly every family travel situation.)
  • Prepare the kids ahead of time; talk through what will happen. Explain that they will sleep at home before they get on the train, then they will wake up in order to get to the train, and then they will go to sleep again on the train. Keep your expectations low – this is a new experience, after all – but don’t offer another option (playing on the iPad instead of snoozing).
  • If your budget allows, try to book out an entire cabin. Couchette cabins are either 4 or 6 beds, so pick the one that is closest to the number of people in your family. Children under 6 travel free, but you still have to pay to reserve their sleeping place (see top block of tips).
  • For small infants that don’t yet push themselves up, bring along a carrycot or small travel bassinet (I have the Phil & Teds cocoon and peanut) that you can place on the floor.
  • For older infants and toddlers, request child safety bars when you book the tickets. If it’s not possible to pre-book this feature, ask as soon as you board. Each train only has a limited number, so keep this in mind if you’re traveling during a busy holiday season.
  • If you’re worried about a child falling out of bed, have her sleep on the bottom berth and arrange your luggage in such a way that if she did fall out, she’d only fall a few inches to the luggage, not all the way to the floor.
Child safety nets in sleeping cars. (image)

Child safety nets in sleeping cars. (image)

If you haven’t had your fill of overnight train travel with kid tips today, here are a few more bloggers crazy enough to take their kids on an overnight train:

Would you take your family on an overnight train? Have you already? I’d love to hear your story in the comments below.

I’m happy to be linking up with Sunday Traveler once again! Please check out all of this week’s excellent travel-related posts here at Chasing the Donkey.
Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

The Absolute Best Thing Our Family Did in Paris.. This Time Around

Thrifty Travel Mama | Tips for Exploring Paris by Bike for Families with KidsPhoto Credit

Ahh, Paris. Gorgeous, amazing, one-of-a-kind, and yet.. overdone. Doesn’t everybody have a Top 10 Things to Do in Paris (with Kids) list?

I can’t bring myself to write anything so run-of-the-mill for you. But, even if I could, the entire post would be a big, fat, whopping lie because we likely did not do 8 of the 10 things on our trip.

Instead, let’s focus on a few more relaxed, out of the way, low-key, winter-appropriate Parisian experiences. I’ll still dish on the good, the bad, and the beautiful… I just won’t wrap it all up put a “Top 10” bow on it.

Forgive me.

Forgive me?

Bouncing Around Paris – on a Bike!

Given our family’s love of the outdoors and the smashing success of our day out in Lucca last summer, I was determined to find a way to incorporate seeing Paris by bicycle.

We cycle daily around our little German town, and we love it. Who can argue with built-in exercise, no traffic jams, and zero emissions?

Lucky for us, Paris has established herself as a beacon to bike-friendliness. The city boasts the third-largest bike sharing program in the world (only two cities in China have ‘er beat) and the bike traffic lanes to support it. Unfortunately for us, the Vélib’ public bicycles are not designed for young children or parents toting babies.

The Company – Bike About Tours

Enter Bike About Tours, a recommendation from Rick Steves. While the company was technically closed for the winter, I still received prompt emails from Katharine. The prices seemed fair, the details convenient, and away we booked.

When we picked up the bicycles near the Hotel de Ville, Doc Sci chatted up the co-owner and realized he knew the other co-owner from high school! (Insert “small world” cliché here.)Thrifty Travel Mama | Tips for Exploring Paris by Bike for Families with Kids

The other thing we discovered when picking up the bikes were the variety of options for families. We ended up sticking to traditional three-speed bikes with child seats, but that didn’t stop Doc Sci and Screech from testing out a spiffy Dutch tandem that could accommodate one adult and two children. Sweet ride – but not the best idea when you’re unfamiliar with the equipment and the territory.

The Route

After a hearty handshake, we were off! Across the Pont d’Arcole, we slipped past the imposing Notre Dame before crossing the Seine once again and settling in on the Left Bank.Thrifty Travel Mama | Tips for Exploring Paris by Bike for Families with Kids

We struggled to keep our eyes on the road (and the ever-changing bike lanes – yikes!) and not on the gorgeous landmarks whizzing by: Pont Neuf, Pont des Arts, the Louvre, the Orsay, Pont Alexandre III, Palais Bourbon, Quai Branly… on and on the eye candy taunted us until the object of everyone’s affection slipped into view and established herself on center stage.Thrifty Travel Mama | Tips for Exploring Paris by Bike for Families with Kids

So many people claim that the best view of Paris is from the top of the Eiffel Tower. I disagree. I think Paris without the Eiffel Tower is just another skyline, and how can the tower define the landscape if you’re standing on it?

For me, the better view is from the underbelly up. Stand squarely underneath Eiffel’s creation to appreciate the sheer mass of the structure. This is no girly trinket. It might have feminine frills, but the bones are literally ironclad.Thrifty Travel Mama | Tips for Exploring Paris by Bike for Families with Kids

After scraping our jaws off the ground, we zipped over to a neighborhood pizzeria to pick up a mediocre pie that we promptly devoured on a bench in front of the iron lady herself. Terrible food, gorgeous company.

We gave the cycling legs a break at the Champ de Mars playground where we heard mostly English spoken (expat hangout?) before zooming off toward the Army Museum. We were having too much fun on two wheels to pay for a look at Napoleon’s tomb.Thrifty Travel Mama | Tips for Exploring Paris by Bike for Families with Kids

I had high hopes for a walk in the sculpture garden at the Rodin Museum (surely my boys could handle that?!), but Big Foot spoiled our plans by falling asleep. We were forced to continue pedaling or face the wrath of an overtired baby.

Instead, I dipped in to La Maison du Chocolat where the only thing I could afford was a to-go cup brimming with soupified hot chocolate. Hello, delicious! The truffles are handled like pearls here, and the prices are about the same. Watch your wallets, folks.Thrifty Travel Mama | Tips for Exploring Paris by Bike for Families with Kids

Wearing our cocoa mustaches proud, we rode until we hit the big-time Boulevard Saint Germain. The day was wearing thin, and our nerves followed suit.  We stopped for another kid-friendly break at a small playground in front of the Musée de Cluny.

Had I not been so tired, I would’ve realized we were but a stone’s throw from Luxembourg Gardens and the fabulous playgrounds there. Ah, well, our small male army seemed satisfied with the paltry pre-fab, and Doc Sci and I amused ourselves by debating whether the sentry next to the free toilet was there to protect the paper or the people. Now, there’s a candidate for world’s weirdest job – waste watcher.

The day waned further, and we realized our bikes were not outfitted with lights (a major no-no in Germany). We rallied the troops and rounded out the day with a leisurely ride through the Île Saint-Louis and the Île de la Cité.

In case no one in history has ever told you, Paris is gorgeous at dusk.

With the bikes tucked safely back in their parking garage, we trudged back to our apartment knowing we’d have to spend the next days on foot. Paris really is better by bicycle.

Practical Tips

Just a few logistical notes…

  • We rented two adult bikes with seats attached for Screech (4) and Big Foot (1). We felt confident in T-Rex’s cycling abilities, so we rented a children’s bike for him.
  • In hindsight, it would’ve been better to rent a tandem (this kind – and yes, Bike About had one) because the bike lanes were somewhat different than what we’re used to in Germany.
  • Many roads have dedicated bike lanes and paths. However, in the absence of such a lane, bikes may use the bus/taxi lane. While we never felt unsafe in the bus/taxi lane, we were made well-aware of the drivers’ annoyance with cyclists in their way.
  • If you do not have children with you, I highly recommend the Vélib’ system as it is quite convenient and extremely cheap.
  • But for families who are looking for an excellent Parisian cycling experience, I would not hesitate to recommend or personally use Bike About Tours again. You can rent bikes or sign up for an actual tour. No paid advertisement here – just a good, old-fashioned friendly recommendation.

Have you discovered Paris on two wheels? Would you cycle the streets with your kids?

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Exploring Tuscan Hill Towns: Montepulciano, Pienza, & Lucignano

Thrifty Travel Mama - Taking the Kids to Tiny Tuscan Hill TownsThe landscape of Tuscany is littered with tiny hill towns.  Many of these enclaves are not well known outside of the immediate area (Torrita di Siena), while a others appear as regulars in the guidebooks (San Gimignano).  So, how do you know which ones to investigate and which ones to ignore?

Honestly, I have no idea.

Not the answer you were expecting?  The truth is, that even though I travel often and trip logistics is a hobby (okay, obsession) of mine, I still end up overwhelmed.  Too many options, too little time!

Don’t worry – I won’t leave you completely in the dark.  Here are two approaches that will help you sort through the list.  What?  You have no list yet?  Consult your nearest Lonely Planet, Best Small Towns in Italy or Wikipedia.

Location

With three small kiddos, this it the method I use most.  Punch your villa / vacation rental / hotel location into Google maps.  Zoom out a bit until you can see the surrounding location names.  Use the driving directions feature for any towns not immediately visible.

And since location and transportation go hand in hand, don’t forget to factor how you will get from your lodging to your day trip location.  I am a big fan of public transportation, but I have to say that in Italy, I much preferred to go by car to the small towns.

Be advised that if you’re traveling roads other than the autostrada (interstate with tolls) or the raccordo (highway), driving times will be longer than what is shown in the search results.  We limited our list to locations one hour or less by car.

Travel by bus in Italy is intermittent and rarely on time.  Train travel is better, and if you choose this method you’ll have any easy time narrowing down your list as few hilltop villages feature railway stations.

Interest

What are your family’s interests?  Love wine?  Try Greve in Chianti.  Enjoyed Under the Tuscan Sun?  Don’t miss Cortona.  Into religious history?  Stop in Assisi.  Find out what each town is known for, and narrow the list from there.

Today, I’d like to feature three hilltop towns we explored: Montepulciano, Pienza, and Lucignano.


Thrifty Travel Mama - Montelpulciano with KidsMontepulciano surprised me with its attractive alleys (really!), quiet streets, and unique shops.

As we trekked up the shockingly steep streets, I felt like REAL people lived here despite the obvious presence of tourists and souvenirs.  Perhaps as evidence, we happened upon two playgrounds frequented by Italian families.

We did not, however, see many children on the streets of Montepulciano.  One possible explanation is that cars are not banned in the city center.  Sure, these areas are technically pedestrian zones.  But, I never felt comfortable letting go of my child’s hand for fear of being run over by the constant stream of trucks and whizzing Vespas squeezing through the narrow lanes.  Alas, this is Italy – and we quickly grew accustomed to the perpetual hand holding.Thrifty Travel Mama - Taking the Kids to Tiny Tuscan Hill Towns

Thrifty Travel Mama - Taking the Kids to Tiny Tuscan Hill TownsThrifty Travel Mama - Taking the Kids to Tiny Tuscan Hill TownsOf all the landmarks in Montepulciano, T-Rex and Screech enjoyed the well at the Piazza Grande the most.  Doc Sci went all nerdy on me trying to explain the physics of lowering and raising water-laden buckets.  I tried to admire the architecture but found it difficult to ignore the twenty gazillion plastic chairs and concert equipment mucking it all up.

Montepulciano is known for its wine, so savor a glass or buy a bottle to go.


Thrifty Travel Mama - Pienza with KidsPienza was designed to be the “perfect” Renaissance town (more history and why it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site here).

The architecture is lovely for sure; but, best of all, it’s flat and quite small.  In fact, if you don’t stop to gawk or eat, you could walk the entire thing in 30 minutes or less.

The centro storico is a treat for art or history buffs… that is, if you can manage an eyeful in between the crowds.  Better to wander behind the main square and catch a breathtaking view of the Val D’Orcia landscape.

Thrifty Travel Mama - Taking the Kids to Tiny Tuscan Hill TownsThrifty Travel Mama - Taking the Kids to Tiny Tuscan Hill TownsThrifty Travel Mama - Taking the Kids to Tiny Tuscan Hill TownsBesides a great spot for a family photo, this punto panoramico is an excellent area to give your nose a rest.  Pienza is known for its pecorino cheese, and they’ve got the stench to prove it.  If you don’t mind the odor, feel free to sample the different varieties offered in the shops.  But hold on to your pocketbooks and purchase your edible souvenirs at the grocery store across from the Agip gas station on the SS146.

Other than a decent playground on Via Enzo Mangiavacchi, we didn’t find many hidden gems in Pienza.  I’d say the village is worth a quick stop especially if Renaissance architecture is your thing, but refrain from making it the star of your day.


Thrifty Travel Mama - Lucignano with Kids Prior to researching villas, I’d never heard of Lucignano before.  We ended up booking Casal Gheriglio which lounges at the foot of the hill.  On one of our hang-out-and-do-nothing days, we decided to wander up and have a look.

What a treat!  Billed as a model example of how medieval towns should be, we appreciated the orderly streets… with nary a tourist in sight.  Lucignano was a breath of fresh air after the chaos of Siena and the crowds of San Gimignano.

Thrifty Travel Mama - Taking the Kids to Tiny Tuscan Hill TownsThough almost every nook and cranny was shut up on the day of our visit (Ferragosto), the playground was filled with families.  We couldn’t help but stare and giggle at the old men playing cards at the outdoor cafe.  What we assumed was Italian trash talk stood in sharply contrasted their pressed shirts and neatly combed white hair.  Perhaps Rick Steeves might have missed this “back door.”

If museums and shopping are what you’re after, look elsewhere.  Lucignano hasn’t yet been overrun by tourism.  The locals do have to eat, so you won’t be without a trattoria, pizzeria, and gelateria.  But, streets are hushed, and the most interesting thing to do here is burn up your camera taking photos… which is just fine with me.

This post is part of Our Tuscan Family Adventure: Two Weeks of History, Culture, Food, and Fun in Italy series.  Click on the link to view our bucket list and recaps of each excursion!

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Cycling the Walls of Lovely Lucca – with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama - Cycling the Walls of Lucca with KidsLucca is, in a word, lovely.

Everything about the place took me by surprise.  Not only is  the architecture just downright pretty and slightly unique, but the town is so…. relaxed.  No one is in a hurry.  No crowds, no jostling, no chaotic queuing.

Not to dis Florence or anything, but Lucca is a breath of fresh air compared to its more famous neighbor.

When working on our itinerary, I squeezed Lucca in between two packed day trips (Florence and the Cinque Terre).  It was meant to be a sort of low-key, half-day filler, really.  But we were so charmed, we found it hard to leave.Thrifty Travel Mama - Cycling the Walls of Lucca with Kids

Though graceful in the streets, Lucca is most known for its massive, ancient walls.  Four kilometers in circumference, the surface of the walls are wide enough to accommodate two lanes of vehicles.  In fact, auto races were held on the walls in previous years.

Today, residents and visitors alike walk, jog, run, and cycle the walls.  I didn’t want to buck the trend – so we rented bikes and joined in!

The walls of Lucca from outside the city.

The walls of Lucca from outside the city.

The wide, wide walls.

The wide, wide walls.

Our bikes were from Cicli Bizzarri on the north side of town.  Rates were 3 euros per hour for adult and children’s bikes; tandems, trailers, and Surrey bikes cost more.  We opted for two bikes with children’s seats, and a kids mountain bike for T-Rex.  I wanted to rent a Surrey, but Doc Sci wasn’t keen.  Since it was expensive (I think 12 or 15 euros per hour), I acquiesced.

Though he cycles to school each day, T-Rex does not have gears on his bike.  The kid has not stopped talking about his “gear bike” since!  

I rented this bike with a baby seat on the front.  Big Foot liked being where he could see the action, but it was difficult to get used to extra weight on the front.  And the little stinker kept putting his hand over the bell whenever I rang it.

I rented this bike with a baby seat on the front. Big Foot liked being where he could see the action, but it was difficult to get used to extra weight on the front. And the little stinker kept putting his hand over the bell whenever I rang it.

Once airborne, we couldn’t believe the extraordinary views from above of this darling city.  Boutiques, churches, backyards, fountains, flowers – everything exuded a quiet elegance.  The boys enjoyed counting the playgrounds (two down below and three on the walls themselves).

One complete circle on the path takes around 20-25 minutes if you don’t stop.  We started clockwise, and then had another go in the opposite direction.  Since the walls are so wide, I never worried about T-Rex taking a tumble.  Of course, he rode near the middle of the path… just in case.

Here we go!

Here we go!

One of the playgrounds we saw.

One of the playgrounds we saw from above.

These houses backed right up to the walls.

These houses backed right up to the walls.

Even the ice cream is on wheels in Lucca!

Even the ice cream is on wheels in Lucca!

Before we returned our bikes, we decided to dip into the city below.  Unfortunately, we found ourselves befuddled by the ancient alleys and lack of street signs several times, but (truth be told) that happens even when we’re walking!  Even so, our legs were happy to be pedaling rather than pounding the pavement for hours as we had done in Florence the previous day.

If you happen to cycle in the city itself, be forewarned that pedestrians here don’t know the first thing about sharing paths with bikes.  I might’ve gone a little overboard ding-a-ling-ing the bell…

After taking a wrong turn, we found Spiderman!

After taking a wrong turn, we found Spiderman!

For lunch, we chose the Trattoria da Leo as recommended by our trusty guide book.  Again, it didn’t disappoint.  With incredible food and reasonable prices, it’s no surprise that snagging an al fresco table at lunch time can be a real challenge.  Reserve in advance, if possible.

In a sheer stroke of luck, we ordered two knockout dishes – Minestra di Farro Lucchese and Rigatoni something-or-other with eggplant.  I don’t even like eggplant, and Doc Sci and I had a thumb war over the last noodle.  I’m still hunting for a recipe to replicate the harmonious flavor of that soup!  Even picky Big Foot scarfed down everything we put in front of him.  After mopping up every last dribble of sauce, we were out the door for less than 30 euros.  Yes!

Trattoria da Leo

Trattoria da Leo

To crown our culinary experience, we sought out some gelato.  The organic flavors at De’ Coltelli hit the spot.  A few euros later, we savored intense blueberry and lightly sweetened yogurt.  Should you be the adventurous type, De’ Coltelli also whips up fish gelato.  Say, what?!

Delicious organic gelato.

Delicious organic gelato.

We passed a boutique called Isola on the way back to the car.  I popped in and found myself unable leave without a darling necklace.  Whenever I wear it, I’ll think of the soup, the scenery, and the sigh of relief I felt in lovely Lucca.

One more darling church with a handful (instead of hundreds) of people.

I couldn’t resist – here’s one more simply elegant church with a handful (instead of hundreds) of people.

Practical tips for Lucca:
  • For free parking, navigate to the Piazzale Don Franco Baroni near Via delle Tagliate.  It’s about a five minute walk to the walls (and Cicli Bizzarri) from there.
  • The city is mostly flat and many ramps lead up to the walls so this is one of the few good places in Tuscany to bring a pram.
  • Free bathrooms can be found at the Tourist Information office sandwiched in between Cicli Bizzarri and another bicycle shop.

This post is part of Our Tuscan Family Adventure: Two Weeks of History, Culture, Food, and Fun in Italy series.  Click on the link to view our bucket list and recaps of each excursion!

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